It is less than a fortnight since Manchester United made it clear that they were not interested in bringing Pep Guardiola to the club, instead staunchly backing Louis van Gaal. Comedy is all about timing, you see.
Each United performance in recent weeks has been more miserable than the last, but this one turned the barrel over and started scratching from the other side. Norwich had allowed 47 shots on target in their previous seven away league games. Just the two from United at Old Trafford.
Speaking after the game, Van Gaal conceded that the sacking of Jose Mourinho had only made his task harder. “Of course I am worried about it because belief in a manager is very important,” Van Gaal said. “And when you lose as a manager that confidence decreases.” Van Gaal also admitted that he had no words for his players after defeat. The time for inspiration had probably passed by 5pm, but it again reflects the Dutchman’s apparent inability to address this slump.
Chelsea’s decision to pull the trigger harms Van Gaal’s own position in two ways. United’s hierarchy not only have a precedent, but an obvious replacement. Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola are two candidates for next summer but Mourinho is waiting in the wings, coughing pointedly.
Mourinho now casts a shadow across Van Gaal’s technical area while the Dutchman resolutely sits in his seat. There was only one manager’s name sung in the stands at Old Trafford. Both Norwich and United fans paid their own damning tributes.
Van Gaal’s employment must surely be untenable irrespective of Mourinho’s likelihood to step forward. United are winless in six matches, and now look defensively unsound as well as blunt in attack. Boos are now as regular a feature at Old Trafford as an eyebrow-raising Van Gaal substitution.
Chelsea supporters’ reason for anger at the departure of their manager at least partly reflected a desire to shun the short-termism that has hung around their necks like an albatross. It’s an understandable concern, but Van Gaal has never been the long-term option for United. He was intended as the calm after the storm, the reliable stopgap and rebuilder of United’s house. Most supporters are tired of watching the paint drying on the walls.
A few weeks ago, we wrote that the most important question for Van Gaal was in which direction they would lurch next, but few predicted a decline this stark. United rank 18th in the Premier League for shots taken, 15th for shots on target and eighth for goals scored. Functionality was forgivable when results were satisfactory. Dropping out of the top four will cause justified panic.
Key players feel underused, demotivated or ostracised. Every player bar Chris Smalling and David de Gea has declined during his management. United are scoring fewer goals than at any other point during the Premier League era, a reputation foolishly staked on captain Wayne Rooney. The reasons for Van Gaal’s immediate unemployment now firmly outweigh those for continued faith.
Van Gaal has been unfortunate with two separate injury crises, but that is where Lady Luck should stop shouldering the blame. The rest is down to him. Even the loyalists have now turned.